And this week, we learned he met a father’s grief with the promise of a check. That may reflect a common impulse. Americans all want to honor and compensate the military; nothing is too good for our troops. But much of the public is also apparently happy with the arrangement that leaves their sacrifices out of sight, and excuses their children from service.
Understanding the incalculable price that such families have been asked to pay on our behalf takes effort. Bob Gates has written and spoken movingly about his nightly ritual of penning condolence letters while Secretary of Defense.
I was determined that these young people would not just become statistics for me. And so I started out by handwriting parts of the—of the condolence letters. And then—and even then that wasn’t enough, I felt. And I so then I started asking that every time one of these packets came to me, that it’d have a picture of the—of the soldier or sailor, airman or Marine who’d been killed, along with the hometown news so that I knew, you know, what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and sisters and teachers were saying about them, so I felt like I had some personal knowledge about each one of them. And I would write those condolence letters every evening … In those evening sessions, writing the condolence letters, there probably wasn’t a single evening in nearly 4 1/2 years when I didn’t—when I didn’t weep.
These letters may have provided some comfort to their recipients, but as Kelly pointed out, the most important calls and notes came from the friends and fellow servicemembers of their son. The larger objective of the practice, I believe, was to give each death meaning, and even, to Gates, accountability. He signed the orders that sent them to their final resting place.
When I worked for Gates, I sat just down the hall from the young woman who put together these packets for him and occasionally saw her crying at her desk as she performed this awful duty. It was a keen reminder of the real consequences of these operations undertaken for our “national interest,” now underway for 16 years. I wish she would have placed those packets, pointedly, on my desk, on everyone else’s on that corridor, and on the nightly news, and started, rather than closed, conversations on these conflicts.
I worry that Kelly and Mattis, by making the loss of troops so sacred and dissuading hard questions about the objective of the risks they took, are widening the divide they so often lament between those who serve and those totally disconnected with the military. That would be ironic and sad, given that they are better positioned than almost anyone else to aid in closing this gap. Kelly’s decision to only accept questions from reporters who know Gold Star families was unsettling, later explained by a White House official: “What he wanted to convey … is that this was a serious time, and attacks were being lobbed that were not factual or fair—from people unqualified to make them and who had not suffered.” Did he make a point? Yes. But placing restrictions on the ability to ask questions about the rationale for a servicemember’s mission that cost his life makes that loss less sacred, not more.